This is the last installment in a three part series on some of my favorite food experiences in Tokyo and Kyoto Japan. If you missed it, make sure you check out part 1, Noodles, Unagi and Tempura and Tonkatsu and part 2, Yakatori; Izakaya, Sushi, and Okonomiyaki. This post will focus on the incredible and diverse markets and food halls in Tokyo and Kyoto.
Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market
If people know you are interested in food and going to Tokyo, they always say “You have to go to the fish market early in the morning!” This was always part of our plan, but we were in Tokyo a mere 6 weeks after the earthquake and tsunami of march 2011, and we’d heard that the vendors, some of whom don’t like tourists in the market, had been lobbying to keep sightseers out all together. That, combined with recent changes to the rules regarding visitors not currently being allowed inside the early morning tuna auction, had us showing up well after breakfast. Still, it’s a good idea to get there early because the inside section of the market with the fresh fish seems to start packing it up after 10am. We had two meals in the market, sushi for breakfast and then after, breakfast #2 of noodles in a place where only the workers eat (check parts 1 and 2 for details).
Of course, we were also here to see the market and inside was still pretty frenetic, with guys whizzing around on forklifts (DO be aware and stay out of their way) but many of the vendors were starting to clean up their stalls and put away their product. I actually enjoyed watching their process of hosing down the counters, scrubbing the floors and sharpening their knives for the next day. Contrary to what I’d read, this did not appear to be only a wholesale market, I saw plenty of people who looked like ordinary local shoppers. There is also a produce section to the market and that was still in full swing as we walked through it.
Nishiki Market Kyoto
When researching Kyoto, it was almost impossible not to come across references to Nishiki street. This market is often referred to as an “alley” but really, it’s quite clean and comfortable because it’s located one of the covered arcade streets running parallel to Shijo St between Teramachi St and Takakura St.
While the surrounding streets are also covered arcades (which is great in inclement weather like we had), those streets are bursting with clothing shops, souvenir stands and restaurants. Nishiki is all about the food; it’s filled with market stalls catering to every kind of Japanese specialty imaginable, many of them unique to Kyoto. There are all manner and variety of pickled vegetables, fresh tofu and yuba (tofu skin), fish mongers and butchers. There are a couple of well known knife shops here though our budget prohibited any purchase.
If you visit, go when hungry. I wish I’d realized this, but we were full from the big breakfast at our hotel and thus did not try any of the goodies on offer. There are fried things on sticks (always a good thing if you ask me), sashimi on a stick, samples of dozens of different pickled vegetables, and even sweets to try.
Tokyo Ameyoko Market
The Ameyoko Market is across the street from the South end of the Ueno train station and runs underneath the elevated train tracks. There are two larger pedestrian streets which run parallel to the train tracks and several smaller alleys which crisscross underneath. Legend has it this was a place where black market items could be found, especially after WWII. Now it’s filled with everything from discount clothing, to fresh fish and fruit, to small food stalls.
Depachika (Food Halls)
Daimaru Depachicka, Kyoto
On a whim (and in search of a restroom) we ducked inside Daimaru Department Store on our way to see Kyoto’s Nijo Castle. Suddenly we are in a wonderland of food, something not common in the US; the department store food hall.
In Japan this is called a depachika, and according to the book Food Sake Tokyo the word comes from “the words for department store (depa-to) and basement (chika).” This is no mall food court, oh no. Imagine a high end grocery store surrounded by food counters with every possible prepared and raw food, packaged in impossibly beautiful presentations.
There is a grocery store section filled with imported foods, wines, cheeses, and snacks of all kinds. There’s a butcher where you can buy thinly sliced beef, ready for shabu-shabu. Of course there’s a bakery filled with French pastries, many different kinds of bento boxes, sushi and sashimi, fried items, and beautiful fresh salads. Anything you might want. This is also where we found the $150 melon, perfect, fragrant strawberries and individually wrapped mangos .
What we do not see here are places to sit and eat the food one buys at the counters. There are a couple of places selling hot food with a few tables, but from what I understand it’s expected that all the food is takeaway to be eaten at home. I’ve also read that, except for picnics in the park, eating on the street and out in public is just not done.
In the end, I am struck dumb with awe and overwhelmed by choice. There are samples galore and we try gyoza, and flavored vinegars and donuts. Can I just move in here for a few weeks? We wander for almost an hour and in the end, we choose not to buy our lunch here because we don’t want to carry it around with us at the castle and we don’t know if we’ll be able to eat inside the castle grounds. This is a big mistake and I will later have (many) pangs of regret (and hunger).
Shinjuku Depachika, Tokyo
On our last day in Tokyo we accidentally spent all of our cash, but still needed to have a quick lunch before leaving for the airport. We solved the cash dilemma by stopping in one of the department store food halls connected to Shinjuku station to buy an assortment for lunch back in the hotel room; freshly cooked gyoza and sushi made to order. Thankfully, we were able to pay for it with a credit card.
And finally, I leave you with a little freshly cooked pastry, hot off the grill…
On the way back to the train from a visit to the Tokyo Dome, we passed a street vendor with a cart selling cream filled pastries called obanyaki. We stopped and bought one, really having no idea what it would be like, but it was amazing! Warm, soft and filled with a slightly sweet pastry cream, you can’t go wrong there. He was also selling some filled with red bean paste.
The experiences here are just the highlights. If you want to see more of our trip, including more photos and details of the food and markets, check out the Japan page on my travel blog. There, besides more food, you’ll find Harajuku girls and Rockabilly boys, a wedding ceremony at Tokyo’s Meiji shrine, castles in Kyoto, a temple with a thousand red gates, sacred deer and much more.